Washington Mutual Inc. says the insurance Web site it launched last week is worth the wait.
Executives say they were trying to provide the information and services customers want while avoiding some of the confusion and difficulties created by other sites.
The company has learned from competitors who came online earlier, says Genevieve Smith, executive vice president of e-commerce and marketing for home loans and insurance services.
For example, when users log on to the site they indicate their state and are shown only products available there, Ms. Smith said. This eliminates confusion, because consumers are only shown products they can actually buy, she said.
In addition, consumers need to enter their information only once to get multiple quotes, Ms. Smith said.
The Seattle mortgage and banking company says it sought to build a Web site that was easy to use, provided a lot of information, and offered online quoting. Its www.wamuins.com provides information and quotes on as many as 19 lines, depending on the customers state, from multiple carriers, including Firemans Fund, Safeco, The Hartford, CNA, and American General. It offers homeowners, auto, marine, life, medical, and commercial policies, and the company intends to add other products in coming months.
Customers currently cannot complete the insurance transaction online, said Carl Formato, president of Washington Mutual Insurance Services, Wamus insurance agency subsidiary. Thats down the road for us, as the technology improves, he said. Technological and regulatory barriers prevent a totally online insurance transaction, he said.
The 111-year-old company has $190.78 billion of assets and offers retail banking, mortgage lending, and financial services through 2,000 branches. Washington Mutual Insurance was founded in 1965 and now has 250,000 policies in force.
Historically the agency has marketed its products to Wamus mortgage customers, Mr. Formato said. The Web site will help the agency sell to them and to Wamus retail banking and investment customers through links with the companys other sites, he said.
Our strategy is not only to get to our mortgage customers, Mr. Formato said. There are millions of our customers we dont get to talk to on the retail banking side. Wamu can use its statements and slips to direct customers to the Web site, where they will be exposed to the other products, he said.
Wamu also recently updated its mortgage site, www.wamumortage.com, and its investment site, www.invest1to1.com, and has linked those sites to the new insurance site. Ms. Smith said that on these sites insurance is prominently featured and offered at the point where it makes sense to the customer. The company is also updating its main site to provide easier access to the various product sites.
Though Washington Mutual is pursuing Internet sales capabilities, the company will continue to offer all its products through its branches, mailings, and on the telephone, Ms. Smith said. A basic tenet at the bank is we do business the way the customer wants us to do business, she said. However, we definitely want to move as much business online as we can, she said.
The Washington Mutual brand is an advantage for the insurance site, she said. Companies with an established name are having a lot more success doing business with people online, and Wamu will be no exception, Ms. Smith said. We can afford to take time to make our way through the Internet maze, she said. People will come to us and do business with us because they know who we are, being part of a big powerful national brand.
The company has not released sales projections for the site.
Todd Eyler, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., said that to be successful on the Internet, banking companies must offer a wide range of products from different carriers, as Wamu is doing, and focus on the kinds of customers who actually use the Web to buy financial services.
The big banks have viewed it as a way to extend their traditional cross-selling approach through branches onto the Net, but thats the exact opposite of what consumers want, he said. The Internet is made for cross-buying, not cross-selling.
Banks insurance sites should screen out unsuitable providers and provide quotes from three to five good carriers, Mr. Eyler said. Customers who shop online for insurance like to feel like theyre the ones who make the decision about what they should actually buy, he said.